HOW to sell cars when most people can’t afford to buy one? That is the conundrum for Volkswagen in Rwanda, where it is opening the country’s first car-assembly plant. A new Polo costs 33 times the average Rwandan income. Most cars on the road are second-hand imports. Rwanda absorbs perhaps 3,000 new cars a year, says Thomas Schäfer, VW’s chief in Africa. Past projects by carmakers in Africa, he admits, have ended in “monumental failure”.
Yet there was a hopeful mood when VW launched its operations in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, on June 27th. The moment opens ”a new chapter in Rwanda’s journey,” said Paul Kagame, the president, after taking a demonstration model for a spin. In truth, little of the manufacturing will happen locally, at least to begin with. VW will build its vehicles elsewhere, partly dismantle them, then put them back together in Rwanda.
The real novelty is how the cars will be used. VW is linking production to a ride-hailing and car-sharing service, stocked with…